Delta Basic Economy fares permit a larger carry-on bag, so the focus of this story is on American Airlines and United. If you think you can slip by undetected with you rollerboard, be prepared to pay up and lose every penny you saved by buying a Basic Economy fare in the first place.
Let’s first note that both American and United offer exceptions to their “no overhead bin space” Basic Economy policy. Should you have hold an airline-branded credit card, you can take a larger carry-on bag. If you have elite status, you can also take a larger carry-on bag onboard.
But if you don’t qualify for either exception, you’re not going to like the outcome if you’re caught at the gate. On both American and United, it is $25 to check a bag. But if you’re on a Basic Economy fare and you get caught at the gate, your fee is $50. Why? A $25 fee.
United calls it a gate-handling charge. American labels it a gate-service fee. It’s really a penalty on top of a fee.
Unlike others, who can check their bag without cost to their final destination if overhead bin space runs out, the very point of Basic Economy is to help avoid this problem in the first place. That means if you get caught with a bag, you are going to have to pay up.
A Painful Example
United does not allow online or mobile check-in if you purchase a Basic Economy fare and do not pay for a bag. While I’m sure that alleviates the issue for some, it is easy enough for a pair traveling together to take turns checking in while the other stands at a distance with both carry-on bags.
Vishnu Bhargava and his wife were flying on United from San Francisco to Boston in late July and didn’t notice the conditions of Basic Economy tickets. He checked in the night before, paid for one checked bag and planned to bring two carry-ons. He didn’t read the small print.
When they got to the gate, they were told their carry-on bags would have to be checked. His cost $50—the standard bag fee plus the gate handling charge. His wife’s was $60, since she had already checked one bag. United charges $35 for a second bag, plus the extra fee.
“I was shocked,” says Mr. Bhargava, a retired physician from India. “Whatever I saved with Basic Economy, I had to pay more. This fee is not at all fair.”
Oh, it’s fair. It may be stupid, but it’s certainly fair. As long as it was clearly disclosed, which leads me to my final point.
When you buy a Basic Economy fare on united.com, the restrictions could not be clearer. But when buying on many online travel agencies, the prohibitions are not clearly disclosed. Airlines must work with these travel agencies to ensure the restrictions on such fares are transparent. Otherwise, consumers have a right to get angry.
This reminds me of fare dodging on the trains in Germany, all of which run on an honor system. Sometimes you can get away without buying a ticket, but get caught and you’ll be slapped with an 80EUR fine…probably eating up all your cost savings and more.
If you’re going to buy a Basic Economy ticket on American or United and don’t qualify for a larger carry-on, check it before or leave it at home. If you get caught not only will you be paying more than a regular economy class fare…it will be embarrassing.